This one is for my baby sister, who I'll never forget. It's a true story.
WHEN you were born, I was at the height of my fascination with cars. They brought you home in a 1988 black Mercedes 300E, swaddled in a hospital receiving blanket over the same nightgown we all wore for our home debut. You were big eyes and a shock of black hair, small toes and clenched fists. You were the sixth daughter to my parents, but you were going to be my best friend, because my older sisters already had a younger sister each to devote their attention to. I was eight years older than you and much too young for driving cars, but all I could think of as I cradled you in awkward arms was that eight years later, I would be sixteen, and you would be as old as I were then-- I promised I would take you for a long drive to Montauk, teach you everything I had learned about engines and vintage cars-- maybe I’d take you shopping, just me and you, right after I got my driver’s license.
IT all began as a blindside-- sometime between my tenth birthday and your second, we had planned to collect twigs in the stretch of trees beside the river to weave into baskets. We were delayed because your shoes doggedly refused to go on without causing you pain, and just like that, the fading of your sunshine began its downward spiral out of our hands. Later, at the hospital, they told us that you had fractured your foot. We racked our brains to try and find an explanation, delicate to admit that we hadn’t even noticed. But the explanation that arrived some hours later on a blood work result sheet telling us that cancer had invaded was not one we wanted to hear.
In the following months, we watched as our parents dissolved into your care and faded from our lives in pursuit of strength to wage war against what threatened to rob us of you. Most nights held you away from home, pale beyond recognition in the depths of a raging fever. Mother kept vigil at your side and father wrestled with the agony of what-ifs, pacing the halls of home and the hospital. Few of us slept in those days for fear of missing a moment of you, so we sought respite in the arms of despair that cradled the house and tried our best to keep hope. For the first time, we were powerless.
On the days you did come home, you were so exhausted and your face, though beautiful as ever, stayed taut with pain. We always wanted to let you sleep, but you would bite your lip instead and ask for a game of scrabble with all six of your sisters. And that was how the tradition of scrabble at every homecoming of yours was born--we’d swallow our tears, silently marvel at your strength and bravery, and pour our hearts into every game. In spite of our worries, those were the best moments of all our days.
And so it continued on for the next year and a half; every phone call home felt like an impending delivery of bad news, answered with fear of the worst, and ended in tears of relief. We grew too swollen with the burden of uncertainty to do anything but choke our tears down with half-hearted dinners that were either undercooked or burnt from neglect. Days became a stoic in and out of lost time, and that was when we met the fog.
It started as a pressure over our heads that we misconstrued as worry, but later, we called it depression, absence, a lack of you, or The Fog. It pinned us to our beds and when it didn’t, it reduced us to the couches, keeping our heads full of misplaced guilt and our stomachs heavy with enough anxiety to keep us from eating. At night, it would retreat for the ten minute call from the hospital’s pediatric oncology ward, and the faces ‘round the telephone radiated the hope we found in unity on either side of the line. But every time we said a goodbye that might have been our last, it rushed in like the tide and tucked itself into our beds to hold us as we cried ourselves to sleep.
The fog thickened during the fortnight you spent in the ICU. They told us to prepare for the worst, so we prayed with more conviction than ever before, grasping at anything we could for a sign that things would be okay. But all the usual omen did not tip in our favor-- the weather matched what we were feeling, storming and snowing all fourteen nights. On Friday morning, we awoke to parted clouds, and the fog went away for longer than usual. It was winter and everything was cold, but there were sun rays falling through the patio glass onto the living room floor, reflecting off of the trinkets about the shelves and everything was illuminated. It was enough to give us hope, and later we learned that your fever had broken. It was all we could do to cry our thanks.
A week later, you came home. The chemotherapy had paralyzed one of your vocal cords and left so little of you behind that there was barely anything to hold. But the fire in your eyes burned so brightly that I could swear the sun was shining through your smile as I fixed a barrette to the one strand of hair that remained. You told us individually that you loved us all, even the rogue housecat that terrified you. Over scrabble that night we sang, and though your voice would never raise to more than a hoarse whisper again, it was the most beautiful voice of all of ours.
I STILL don’t understand. You had been doing so well-- your weight was up, your skin was rosy and your hair had come back in strong, short curls that suited your face perfectly. All of the signs pointed to you making a full recovery, but led us instead to a reality we would never be prepared to face.
In the garage that night, I said a selfish prayer for you to survive as they put you in the car. I knew you were fading, but I remembered the promise I made to you the day I first met you, so I asked for you to live to be a least nineteen-- old enough so that I could teach you to drive, and still have some years left over. I needed you to grow up with me; five years from then, you were going to turn eight and go on that drive Montauk with me. You were going to be my tiny confidant because my heart left no room for alternative options. But life had a different plan, and I found myself sobbing alone on the porch, afraid you were being pulled away from me.
They returned a few hours later without you, red eyes and swollen noses saying everything our throats were too choked to ask. We sat around the house that evening trying to find words to fill the holes in our hearts, but they were much too deep and every word was painful with insignificance.
A month later, I turned twelve and I started to resent you. You should have let me take your place-- I was older, I had lived longer, and you deserved so much more than this. When you left, you took our parents with you, and my oldest sister, too, but honestly, if anyone needed or deserved them most, it was you-- they just haven’t been the same since. There are too many holes we can’t fill.
We learned to stop fighting the fog and it settled in around us instead of bearing down on our heads. I’m nineteen now, you know. I still haven’t taken that trip to Montauk.
Edited for corrections - 7/3/2013.